Autism and Ego Boundaries
by Eden of @the.autisticats
I stare at people. By that I mean, intensely observe specific people in public places or at social gatherings. This quirk of mine has been pointed out by numerous people over the years, most of them exasperated family members suffering from secondhand embarrassment. My wide-eyed stare is never mean spirited or judgemental, but others contend that it can be quite unsettling. When I stare, I am almost never aware of it. Likewise, it seldom crosses my mind that, just as I can see other people, they can see me looking at them.
In navigating the world, I tend to observe humans the same way I observe objects, plants, and animals. That is not to say that I’m oblivious to their humanity; rather, that I view myself and other humans as integral parts of the environment. Because I feel no psychological separation from the environment, I observe people as though I am a wall, a chair, or a bookshelf; as though I cannot willfully affect them, and as though they will not notice me. For most of my waking hours, I do not have a clearly defined ego, or sense of self. This is because I am intimately connected with the environment through my senses. I find it difficult to distinguish between myself and what I feel, the things I sense and the things themselves. So, instead of feeling like a “person”, a step above the things I sense, alienated from everything but myself, I feel like part of the environment. Staring at people, then, doesn’t feel like staring at people. It feels like being an invisible, irrelevant, unobtrusive observer. Like a perceptive pincushion or a curious curtain.
Like many autistic people, I have weak ego boundaries. That’s another way to say that I “lose myself” very easily, whether that be in an environment or an activity. Losing myself psychologically and losing myself physically go hand in hand, so my proprioception is generally pretty dismal. How can I know where I am in space if I feel like I am space? Having weak ego boundaries that fluctuate based on environmental circumstances can be difficult to manage. More often, though, it’s just confusing and awkward for other people.
My mother and sister like to remind me of one fateful night a few years ago (I was around 15 at the time), when we were dining out at an Irish pub in Boston. We were seated upstairs, with my mom and sister on one side of the table, and myself opposite them. The staircase ran parallel to our table, on my left, and the upstairs landing was behind me. I was right next to the railing, which was presumably there to keep me from falling 12 feet onto the stairs below and breaking my neck. I could see a little bit of the ground floor in front of me and to my left, when I looked down. If I turned over my left shoulder, I could see people walking up and down the stairs.
While we waited for our food to arrive, I looked around the room. I absorbed the pub like a sponge, soaking up the deep red ceiling and carved wooden chairs, the colored glass lights and flickering candles. I melted into oblivion, became part of the room. Then, behind me, I heard a noise. A man and a woman got up from their seats, and made their way towards the landing of the staircase. I looked over my right shoulder to see that the woman had long black hair, and was wearing high heels. She wobbled as she walked, and the man, who I assumed to be her boyfriend, held her arm to assist her. I thought she might be tipsy or drunk. Their trip to the stairs took over a minute, because the woman was having such trouble walking. Instead of looking away after 10 or 15 seconds, I watched the whole procession, craning my neck to look over my shoulder. My mom hissed, “Stop staring!” but I was much too curious to stop, and besides, there was no way they’d notice me.
They arrived at the landing, and began making their way down the stairs. I pressed my forehead between the bars of the balcony, to look down at them as they went. As I observed, my face was completely blank and expressionless, and my eyes were open quite wide. I wanted to know if the woman would fall, and if the man seemed trustworthy enough to be helping her. The man helped the woman down about 5 to 7 steps, before pausing. Then, he turned his head, and looked up at me. This was quite shocking, as it hadn’t occurred to me that it was even possible for him to notice or care about my existence. I continued staring at him, frozen, in curiosity and amazement. Then, he smiled.
His smile seemed confused and forced, a sort of “Hi, I notice that you’re staring at me, this feels really awkward and I’m not sure what to do about it, so I’m going to smile and hope it diffuses the tension of the situation.” Instead of smiling back, as a gesture to say, “Oh right I’m sorry I’m gawking at you, how silly of me, please carry on and have a good day,” I continued to stare blankly at him.
At this point, my sister whispered, “Oh my god, smile back!!” Unfortunately, I couldn’t. I was much too surprised and taken aback, first by being noticed, and second by being smiled at. So I sat there immobile, forehead pressed between the bars of the wooden banister, my eyes boring holes into his soul. The man’s face fell.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a person so bewildered. His smile vanished and a small confused frown appeared instead, as he looked away from me and back down the stairs. I turned towards my mom and sister, and discovered the looks of horrified embarrassment etched into their faces.
“Why did you do that?” my sister asked, plainly mortified.
“I don’t know,” was my honest response, “I didn’t think he’d see me.”
One might think an experience such as that would begin to curb my staring habit. Interestingly, my brain seems incapable of remembering the consequences of ego dissolution. Or perhaps I do remember what happens when I lose myself, but I can’t avoid it, because of the nature of my sensory processing system. And once my ego is dissolved into my surroundings, I’m incapable of conceptualizing myself as anything other than an observant object.